The key to Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner’s ‘weird’ French Open semi-final

Carlos Alcaraz battled past Jannik Sinner in five sets  (Reuters)
Carlos Alcaraz battled past Jannik Sinner in five sets (Reuters)

As Carlos Alcaraz advanced into his first French Open final, the 21-year-old broke into a wide smile. He had beaten rival Jannik Sinner in five sets, overturning a rocky start to outlast the player who will be turning world No 1 on Monday. Alcaraz’s victory, 2-6 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-3 in four hours and nine minutes, was not the classic that was expected between the two finest players of their generation, but it was a victory to display the vast amount of experience the Spaniard has already accumulated on these stages, acquiring the physical and mental tools to progress.

“You have to find the joy in suffering, that’s the key, even more on clay in Roland Garros,” Alcaraz grinned. “Long rallies, four-hour matches, five sets, you have to suffer. But you have to enjoy suffering.” He is now the youngest player in tennis history to reach grand slam finals on all three surfaces, after winning the US Open and Wimbledon. Unlike the 22-year-old Sinner, this was not his first time in a French Open semi-final. While Sinner struggled with cramps, stretching out his hand and arm due to “tension” in the third set, Alcaraz had been there before.

Alcaraz and Sinner’s semi-final promised to be a blockbuster: like their previous grand slam meeting at the US Open in 2022, it lasted five sets and required Alcaraz to dig deep to get over the finish line, but unlike that 3am epic two years ago, both players had spells where their level slipped. Across the four hours, it was a match that was defined more by errors than winners, inconsistency rather than spectacular. “The third set was a bit weird,” Alcaraz admitted.

Sinner and Alcaraz exchange words at the net (Reuters)
Sinner and Alcaraz exchange words at the net (Reuters)

Yet Alcaraz prevailed, again. At 21, he has now played 12 five-set matches at the grand slams, winning 11. He referenced the lessons he learned from his previous experience of the French Open semi-finals, when he lost in four sets to Novak Djokovic after being hit by painful cramps at the start of the third set. Alcaraz admitted after that defeat to Djokovic that the nerves had played their part. Against Sinner, they threatened to strike again, but Alcaraz had the experience to play through it.

“I know you have to keep calm and keep going because the cramp will go away,” he explained. “You have to try to make the points shorter.” On the other side of the net, Sinner’s struggles were evident, as the Italian stretched out his right arm and received treatment during the changeovers.

Sinner receives treatment during the third set (Reuters)
Sinner receives treatment during the third set (Reuters)

It briefly sparked a resurgence from Sinner, as the Australian Open found his forehand and improved his serve. Against Sinner’s precision, accuracy and depth in the opening set, Alcaraz had been wiped off the court, barely lasting in the baseline duels. Sinner’s supremacy did not last, though, as Alcaraz found a way to disrupt the Italian. By the fourth set, as both players found their highest level, it was easy to see why Djokovic said Alcaraz was a combination of himself, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

And, like in that Wimbledon final where Djokovic paid such a glowing compliment, Alcaraz fought from behind by winning over the crowd, finding spectacular winners from outrageous positions, working his magic into the grind and sheer effort of the comeback. As Alcaraz won five games in a row to take the fourth set and break early in the fifth, he did so while raising the energy on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Even in a match Alcaraz described as one of the toughest of his career, the Spaniard enjoyed the battle. His level increased as the tension did too: the fourth and fifth sets produced typical highlight-reel shotmaking.

Sinner will learn from it, too. His ascent to world No 1 has been fuelled by the lessons he has been able to absorb from defeats along the way: experiencing cramps during a high-stakes match is part of the process and is a reminder that even for the best players in the world, the process is never truly complete. “The winner is happy and the loser tries to find a way to beat him next time,” Sinner said. “That’s exciting, and that’s what I’ll try to do.” And when it came to suffering, Alcaraz was a step ahead.